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Four On-Ice Lessons the Dallas Stars Can Learn from the Final Four

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The stage is set, with the Canadiens vs. the Golden Knights, and the Lightning vs. the Islanders. Do the Dallas Stars have anything in common with them? If not, what can they learn?

Cole Caufield battles Derek Forbort in game four of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Montreal Canadiens and the Winnipeg Jets.
Cole Caufield battles Derek Forbort in game four of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Montreal Canadiens and the Winnipeg Jets.
Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The stage is set: Vegas vs. Montreal, and Tampa vs. New York. Writers and reporters will look for broad narratives about what it means to be a Stanley Cup contender. And they may talk about a shift away from raw skill with teams like Colorado and Toronto getting ousted earlier than expected, and “gritty” teams like Montreal and NY drawing in. Yes, the lower seeds have won 9 of 12 series thus far. But all of these superficial points miss the nuance of who these teams are.

Personally, I don’t think the playoffs offer any insight that is uniquely distinct from the regular season, at least broadly speaking. The most recent Stanley Cup winners have been teams with strong reputations (Pittsburgh, Chicago), either dominant in the regular season (Tampa, Washington), or consistent across an extended stretch, like St. Louis. The challengers, on the other hand, have been a motley crew of diesel fuel (Dallas in 2020), expansion magic (Vegas in 2018), and southern comfort (Nashville in 2017).

Each team has followed a very distinct path. Montreal upset a dangerous, but frail Toronto team, and then followed it up with clean sweep against a blueline-deficient Winnipeg. Vegas fought through a stylistically tough Minnesota, and then dominated a Colorado team that ran out of answers just as Vegas found theirs. The Islanders trounced the Penguins in six, and then Trotz’ed the Capitals in six. Tampa Bay won a forty-yard dash against Florida, and won another forty-yard dash against Carolina.

It’s easy to look at the final four in the context of where Dallas is headed and see similarities in the broad strokes: the plucky underdogs (Montreal), the earthy brawlers (Vegas), and the brickwall (Islanders). But the rubber devil is in the vulcanized details. To that end, I want to look at a few quick takeaways Dallas would do well to pay attention to.

ABP: Always Be Passing

2020-2021 Passing Data via Corey Sznajder.

It’s easier to defend a shot than a pass. One thing the top four have in common is that they form the top half of NHL teams who aim to move the puck with more than one touch. Montreal, Tampa, and NY like to funnel their shots from low-to-high movement. How they do that varies. Again via Corey Sznajder, Tampa and NY specifically, generate passes-to-shots from their forecheck while Montreal and Vegas use their movement as a punctuation mark rather than a period, shooting off the rush more than directly from the forecheck.

Interestingly, Montreal is not the outlier they’re presented as. They may be touted as a rough and tumble defensive team led by the burly Shea Weber, but their forecheck blends skill and grit across all four lines. As Jack Han wrote, they play an aggressive forecheck fueled by unique icetime distribution, with skilled forwards playing “defensive” roles, and defensive forwards playing with skilled players allowing them to manage the load of each line and truly roll four lines.

If you’re not taking quality shots, you better be getting lucky

Goal component rates via Evolving-Hockey. Regular season vs. Postseason.

The formula for the final four has shifted when looking at the regular season versus the playoffs. If you’re unfamiliar with these charts, they’re broken down by rates above or below expected: blue represents shot rate differential, yellow represents shot quality differential, green represents a differential for goals scored above what you’d expect, and purple represents the differential for goals saved above what you’d expect.

In the regular season, there was a fairly distinct formula for the top ten teams: quantity is great, as is puck luck. In the playoffs, that focus has shifted less on quantity to quality, and turning that quality into good breaks. ‘Luck’ doesn’t make for great or interesting analysis, so to that I would add, lesson two flows from lesson one: Vegas, Tampa, and the Isles were all top eight teams when it came to point shot setups. Half of the final four are shooting great, and generating great quality.

Structure is harder to defend than systems, and the top four teams are good examples of this with their focus on pre-shot movement. Montreal, the exception, relies on strong goaltending and decent shot quality. But two things that didn’t help them in the regular season, goaltending and shot quality, suddenly became their friends in the postseason. Call it the Carey Price factor, if you will.

Either don’t take penalties at all, or draw a lot

Penalty Differential via Hockeyviz.com

This one’s pretty obvious. Looking at the final four in the context of minor penalties, the last men standing were either good at drawing penalties and undisciplined themselves (Tampa), or were strictly disciplined (Tampa and Vegas). As always, Montreal is the only outlier. Again, not surprising but I do find it interesting that penalty differential was an either/or affair: either you rolled the dice both ways, or you didn’t roll the dice at all.

Strike first: the last four Stanley Cup winners did

Expected goals-for per 60 vs. expected goals-against per 60 via Jfresh and Patrick Bacon.

We keep talking about what an outlier Montreal is. And it’s entirely possible they are, and eventually get bounced due to playing in a weak division. But until Thursday night, Montreal led the playoffs in first-period goals. Last year’s postseason leader in first period goals? Tampa Bay. In 2019? St. Louis. In 2018? Washington. In 2017? Pittsburgh. This isn’t statistically significant. Any Cup winner will play more games, and thus have more first periods to score in. But the data makes clear one thing: defense doesn’t win championships, dynamic teams do.

So how does Dallas stack up against these quick take principles?

It’s mixed. Let’s backtrack. For lesson one, as you can see, Dallas was not a good passing team in the regular season: both a combination of their conservative system and missing two of their better passers in Seguin and Radulov. Even teams like Montreal and the Islanders are good at carrying the pace of play with controlled movement. Dallas, conversely, not only tasked their blueline with explicit scoring, but also their general movement, leaving the forwards to create offense in a very binary (and thus easier to defend) way: either get the puck to the point, or grab rebounds.

For lesson two, the Stars profile like a potentially good team when it comes to shot quality, but they haven’t been lucky with their quality. In fact, it’s three seasons now that Dallas has had a low shooting percentage. Perhaps that speaks to the roster, or perhaps that speaks to three seasons of coaching staffs with similar mindsets, emphasizing defense more than offense. Hopefully good health will allow Dallas to change some of how they play, but it’s also been three seasons running that they’ve been a bottom five team when scoring first. That seems like an easy fix: don’t be so conservative. There’s no point in being aggressive if the opponent can predict when the attack is coming. However, Dallas was a disciplined team this season, which bodes well for their Stanley Cup hopes next season.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson is that each team is more a collection of their peculiarities than their broad types. Tampa is not just a skill team. Montreal is not just a team built on goaltending. Vegas is not just a heavy group that can punch you in the mouth. The Islanders are not just defensive wizards.

On the contrary. Tampa is an elite skilled team with a rugged blueline. Price can shut a game down, but they roll their depth with enthusiasm at the top, and experience at the bottom. Vegas is heavy, but they counterattack with speed. NY is defensively responsible, but their structure is fluid. They’re willing to adjust for more creative setups when ice is open for it, they attack the middle, and use east-west movement. From a Stars lens, I don’t see a team that has much in common with the final four, but then, Dallas was once in this very spot. Whether they can make it back is not the real question. The real question is whether they can make it back as more than just another underdog, but as a natural threat.